This article was originally published on The Orlando Sentinel in the Opinion section.
For college students across the country, the winter break is a welcome moment of rest. After a semester of attending classes, studying and testing, they can relax and prepare for a new semester. This week at the annual conference for Student Veterans of America in Orlando, thousands of student veterans will also use this time to address the unique challenges of transitioning from the military to college and a career.
From basic training to military courses and sensitive missions, post911 veterans have met and overcome obstacles that are sometimes unimaginable. But the challenge we face in returning to school is real. Since2008, more than a million veterans have used the post911 G.I. Bill to pursue higher education.
Compared with the traditional college student, veterans tend to be older, often have families to support or are juggling employment and school. Many miss the sense of camaraderie in a military unit and the structure of military life. Others struggle with a lack of understanding from university staff or the visible and invisible wounds of war. While higher than the national average, only a slight majority (51.7 percent) of student veterans succeed in earning a postsecondary degree.
Still, every veteran has what it takes to succeed, and education has given veterans the opportunity to use the leadership skills, adaptability and mission focus that they learned in the military to earn degrees and build fulfilling careers.
After the Second World War, the "greatest generation" used the original G.I. Bill to break through barriers to higher education. The G.I. Bill of 1944 did not just honor those who served, but recognized that veterans' experiences and skills could strengthen our nation's communities and businesses if honed by a college degree. The result was a generation of hardworking, educated veterans who used their skills to help the country prosper like never before.
While returning service members face a different set of challenges today, the promise for our nation remains the same.
We all have a part to play in fulfilling this promise. As veterans, our challenge is to prepare by asking ourselves where we want to be, and thinking through the steps to get there. Beyond that, we must use the resources available to us and access the support systems around us.
As a veteran who pursued higher education and entered the business world, I know these challenges well. To succeed in school, I needed to draw on all the skills and values that drive success in the military — a leadership mindset and nimble thinking to adapt to uncertainty. Most of all, I needed to treat college like I would treat any mission. That meant planning meticulously, executing at the highest level and relying on a strong team around me.
For many student veterans around the nation, SVA is the strong team that helps them succeed. SVA's more than 460,000 members in 1,300 chapters across the country are the "boots on the ground" that help veterans reintegrate into campus life and succeed. Chapters provide peer-to-peer networks for camaraderie and guidance, and coordinate efforts like campus activities and pre-professional networking that help student veterans prepare for the civilian work force.
The public's role is equally important. The key is to understand the veterans we interact with each day, and support veteran-serving organizations that provide services and resources to them. That can be as simple as talking to veterans on our jobs and in our communities about their unique perspective and the challenges they face, offering support where we can. It also requires that leaders in the business world — who stand to gain the most from highly educated veterans in the work force — do their part.
For me, this week's SVA conference is an opportunity to offer the same sort of support and guidance I benefited from. With my Bank of America colleagues, I'll work directly with student veterans to help them chart their career goals, target their job search and refine their resumes. And for those continuing to make their way through college, we'll deepen their financial knowledge to make sure they're getting the most out of the G.I. Bill.
That effort represents an investment in one of our nation's greatest resources — American veterans. As thousands pursue higher education to prepare for the civilian work force, we all should be committed to supporting that effort because every successful veteran is a success for our nation.